The 1980s was the decade when many of the state’s large psychiatric hospitals were emptied. We had the right idea. After years of neglect, the hospitals’ programs and buildings were in decay. But we didn’t always understand what we were doing. In my new legislative role, I jumped at the opportunity to move people out of “those places.” Through my subcommittee, I initiated funding for community mental health and substance abuse treatment programs for adults, returned young people from institution-based “special school districts” to schools in their hometowns, and provided for care coordinators to help manage the transition of people back into the community.
But we legislators in Connecticut and many other states made a series of critical misjudgments that have haunted us all ever since.
First, we didn’t understand how poorly prepared the public school systems were to educate children with serious mental illnesses in regular schools and classrooms. Second, we didn’t adequately fund community agencies to meet the new demand for community mental health services—ultimately forcing our county jails to fill the void. And third, we didn’t realize how important it would be to create collaborations among educators, primary care clinicians, mental health professionals, social services providers, and even members of the criminal justice system, if people with serious mental illnesses were to have a reasonable chance of living successfully in the community.
During the twenty-five years since, I’ve experienced firsthand the devastating consequences of these mistakes.